In Box

Tomorrow, We Save

Language offers a clue to countries' economic behavior.

Andrew Wong/Getty Images
Andrew Wong/Getty Images

Why do Germans revere austerity and fiscal discipline, while Greeks spend like there’s no tomorrow? Why can’t the United States convince China to consume more and save less? Yale University economist Keith Chen thinks part of the answer may be in language — particularly in how different languages treat time.

Languages differ in the degree to which they distinguish future events from the present. For example, in what linguists call strong future-time reference (FTR) languages like English, a speaker says, "It will rain tomorrow." In a weak-FTR language like German, one simply says "Morgen regnet es"– literally, "Tomorrow, it rains." Mandarin Chinese has similarly weak time construction. Strong-FTR speakers have to do a little more verbal work to make it clear they’re talking about the future. Chen, who grew up in a Chinese-speaking household in the United States, thinks this subtle difference actually changes the way speakers of different languages conceive of time — which affects how people act in the present.

Extensive psychological research shows that linguistic differences actually do affect the perception of external phenomena. A 2007 study in the National Academy of Sciences journal noted that Russian speakers, who have separate words for "blue" (siniy) and "light blue" (goluboy), have a better ability to distinguish between similar shades of the color than English speakers. When it comes to gauging time, Chen’s hypothesis is that weak-FTR speakers see the future as less distant and therefore engage in fewer behaviors with negative future consequences."Every time your language forces you to specify that you’re talking about the future, it’s a little nudge that this is something different than the present," Chen says. "It’s something that you do to yourself thousands of times a day."

Weak-FTR languages include German, Mandarin, Japanese, and the Scandinavian languages, while English, Greek, Russian, and Spanish are strong-FTR. In a recent paper, Chen compared European families of similar education, income, and religion and found that speakers of weak-FTR languages on average save more for retirement, smoke less, and are less likely to be obese. "Every one of the countries that we think of as an outlier in terms of savings is also an outlier in terms of how they speak about the future," Chen says.

So it’s not just that the Chinese and Northern Europeans are better at planning for the future: They’re already living — or at least speaking — in it.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.